The Jargon of Authenticity

The Jargon of Authenticity

by Theodor Adorno
Theodor Adorno was no stranger to controversy. In The Jargon of Authenticity he gives full expression to his hostility to the language employed by certain existentialist thinkers such as Martin Heidegger. With his customary alertness to the uses and abuses of language, he calls into question the jargon, or 'aura', as his colleague Walter Benjamin described it


Theodor Adorno was no stranger to controversy. In The Jargon of Authenticity he gives full expression to his hostility to the language employed by certain existentialist thinkers such as Martin Heidegger. With his customary alertness to the uses and abuses of language, he calls into question the jargon, or 'aura', as his colleague Walter Benjamin described it, which clouded existentialists' thought. He argued that its use undermined the very message for meaning and liberation that it sought to make authentic. Moreover, such language - claiming to address the issue of freedom - signally failed to reveal the lack of freedom inherent in the capitalist context in which it was written. Instead, along with the jargon of the advertising jingle, it attributed value to the satisfaction of immediate desire. Alerting his readers to the connection between ideology and language, Adorno's frank and open challenge to directness, and the avoidance of language that 'gives itself over either to the market, to balderdash, or to the predominating vulgarity', is as timely today as it ever has been.

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THE Jargon OF Authenticity



Copyright © 1973 Northwestern University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8101-0657-4

Chapter One

THE Jargon OF Authenticity

In the early twenties a number of people active in philosophy, sociology, and theology, planned a gathering. Most of them had shifted from one creed to another. Their common ground was an emphasis on a newly acquired religion, and not the religion itself. All of them were unsatisfied with the idealism which at that time still dominated the universities. Philosophy swayed them to choose, through freedom and autonomy, a positive theology such as had already appeared in Kierkegaard. However, they were less interested in the specific doctrine, the truth content of revelation, than in conviction. To his slight annoyance, a friend, who was at that time attracted by this circle, was not invited. He was-they intimated-not authentic enough. For he hesitated before Kierkegaard's leap. He suspected that religion which is conjured up out of autonomous thinking would subordinate itself to the latter, and would negate itself as the absolute which, after all, in terms of its own conceptual nature, it wants to be. Those united together were anti-intellectual intellectuals. They confirmed their mutual understanding on a higher level by excluding one who did not pronounce the same credo theyrepeated to one another. What they fought for on a spiritual and intellectual plane they marked down as their ethos, as if it elevated the inner rank of a person to follow the teaching of higher ideals; as if there were nothing written in the New Testament against the Pharisees. Even forty years later, a pensioned bishop walked out on the conference of a Protestant academy because a guest lecturer expressed doubt about the contemporary possibility of sacred music. He too had been warned against, and dispensed from, having dealings with people who do not toe the line; as though critical thought had no objective foundation but was a subjective deviation. People of his nature combine the tendency that Borchardt called a putting-themselves-in-the-right with the fear of reflecting their reflections -as if they didn't completely believe in themselves. Today, as then, they sense the danger of losing again what they call the concrete-of losing it to that abstraction of which they are suspicious, an abstraction which cannot be eradicated from concepts. They consider concretion to be promised in sacrifice, and first of all in intellectual sacrifice. Heretics baptized this circle "The Authentic Ones."

This was long before the publication of Sein und Zeit. Throughout this work Heidegger employed "authenticity," in the context of an existential ontology, as a specifically philosophical term. Thus in philosophy he molded that which the authentics strive for less theoretically; and in that way he won over to his side all those who had some vague reaction to that philosophy. Through him, denominational demands became dispensable. His book acquired its aura by describing the directions of the dark drives of the intelligentsia before 1933-directions which he described as full of insight, and which he revealed to be solidly coercive. Of course in Heidegger, as in all those who followed his language, a diminished theological resonance can be heard to this very day. The theological addictions of these years have seeped into the language, far beyond the circle of those who at that time set themselves up as the elite. Nevertheless, the sacred quality of the authentics' talk belongs to the cult of authenticity rather than to the Christian cult, even where-for temporary lack of any other available authority-its language resembles the Christian. Prior to any consideration of particular content, this language molds thought. As a consequence, that thought accommodates itself to the goal of subordination even where it aspires to resist that goal. The authority of the absolute is overthrown by absolutized authority. Fascism was not simply a conspiracy-although it was that-but it was something that came to life in the course of a powerful social development. Language provides it with a refuge. Within this refuge a smoldering evil expresses itself as though it were salvation.

In Germany a jargon of authenticity is spoken-even more so, written. Its language is a trademark of societalized chosenness, noble and homey at once-sub-language as superior language. The jargon extends from philosophy and theology-not only of Protestant academies-to pedagogy, evening schools, and youth organizations, even to the elevated diction of the representatives of business and administration. While the jargon overflows with the pretense of deep human emotion, it is just as standardized as the world that it officially negates; the reason for this lies partly in its mass success, partly in the fact that it posits its message automatically, through its mere nature. Thus the jargon bars the message from the experience which is to ensoul it. The jargon has at its disposal a modest number of words which are received as promptly as signals. "Authenticity" itself is not the most prominent of them. It is more an illumination of the ether in which the jargon flourishes, and the way of thinking which latently feeds it. For a beginning, terms like "existential," "in the decision," "commission," "appeal," "encounter," "genuine dialogue," "statement," "concern," will do for examples. Not a few nonterminological terms of similar cast could be added to this list. Some, like "concern," a term still innocently used by Benjamin and verified in Grimm's dictionary, have only taken on such changed coloring since getting into this "field of tension"-a term that is also an appropriate example.

Thus the important thing is not the planning of an Index Verborum Prohibitorum of current noble nouns, but rather the examination of their linguistic function in the jargon. Certainly not all its words are noble nouns. At times it even picks up banal ones, holds them high and bronzes them in the fascist manner which wisely mixes plebeian with elitist elements. Neo-romantic poets who drank their fill of the precious, like George Hofmannsthal, by no means wrote their prose in the jargon. However, many of their intermediaries-like Gundolf-did so. The words become terms of the jargon only through the constellation that they negate, through each one's gesture of uniqueness. The magic that the singular word has lost is procured for it by manipulations-of whatever kind. The transcendence of the single word is a secondary one, one that is delivered ready from the factory, a transcendence which is a changeling said to be the lost original. Elements of empirical language are manipulated in their rigidity, as if they were elements of a true and revealed language. The empirical usability of the sacred ceremonial words makes both the speaker and listener believe in their corporeal presence. The ether is mechanically sprayed, and atomistic words are dressed up without having been changed. Thus they become more important than the jargon's so-called system. The jargon-objectively speaking, a system-uses disorganization as its principle of organization, the breakdown of language into words in themselves. Many of them, in another linguistic constellation, can be used without a glance at the jargon: "statement," where it is used in its fullest sense, in epistemology, to designate the sense of predicative judgments; "authentic" -already to be used with caution-even in an adjectival sense, where the essential is distinguished from the accidental; "inauthentic," where something broken is implied, an expression which is not immediately appropriate to what is expressed; "radio broadcasts of traditional music, music conceived in the categories of live performance, are grounded by the feeling of as if, of the inauthentic." "Inauthentic" in that way becomes a "critical" term, in definite negation of something merely phenomenal. However, the jargon extracts authenticity, or its opposite, from every such transparent context. Of course one would never criticize a firm for using the word Auftrag (commission), when it has been assigned a commission. But possibilities of that sort remain narrow and abstract. Whoever overstrains them is paying tribute to a blank nominalistic theory of language, in which words are interchangeable counters, untouched by history.

Yet history does intrude on every word and withholds each word from the recovery of some alleged original meaning, that meaning which the jargon is always trying to track down. What is or is not the jargon is determined by whether the word is written in an intonation which places it transcendently in opposition to its own meaning; by whether the individual words are loaded at the expense of the sentence, its propositional force, and the thought content. In that sense the character of the jargon would be quite formal: it sees to it that what it wants is on the whole felt and accepted through its mere delivery, without regard to the content of the words used. It takes under its own control the preconceptual, mimetic element in language-for the sake of effect connotations. "Statement" thus wants to make believe that the existence of the speaker has communicated itself simultaneously with his subject matter and has given the latter its dignity. The jargon makes it seem that without this surplus of the speaker the speech would already be inauthentic, that the pure attention of the expression to the subject matter would be a fall into sin. This formal element favors demagogic ends. Whoever is versed in the jargon does not have to say what he thinks, does not even have to think it properly. The jargon takes over this task and devaluates thought. That the whole man should speak is authentic, comes from the core. Thus something occurs which the jargon itself stylizes as "to occur." Communication clicks and puts forth as truth what should instead be suspect by virtue of the prompt collective agreement. The tone of the jargon has something in it of the seriousness of the augurs, arbitrarily independent from their context or conceptual content, conspiring with whatever is sacred.

The fact that the words of the jargon sound as if they said something higher than what they mean suggests the term "aura." It is hardly an accident that Benjamin introduced the term at the same moment when, according to his own theory, what he understood by "aura" became impossible to experience. As words that are sacred without sacred content, as frozen emanations, the terms of the jargon of authenticity are products of the disintegration of the aura. The latter pairs itself with an attitude of not being bound and thus becomes available in the midst of the demythified world; or, as it might be put in paramilitary modern German, it becomes einsatzbereit, mobilized. The perpetual charge against reification, a charge which the jargon represents, is itself reified. It falls under Richard Wagner's definition of a theatrical effect as the result of an action without agent, a definition which was directed against bad art. Those who have run out of holy spirit speak with mechanical tongues. The secret which is suggested, and from the beginning is not there, is a public one. First one can subtract the misused Dostoevski from the expressionist formula "each man is selected," which can be found in a play by Paul Kornfeld-who was murdered by the Nazis. Then the formula is good only for the ideological self-satisfaction of a lower middle class which is threatened and humbled by societal development. The jargon derives its own blessing, that of primalness, from the fact that it has developed as little in actuality as in spirit. Nietzsche did not live long enough to grow sick at his stomach over the jargon of authenticity: in the twentieth century he is the German resentment phenomenon par excellence. Nietzsche's "something stinks" would find its first justification in the strange bathing ceremony of the hale life:

Sunday really begins on Saturday evening. When the tradesman straightens his shop, when the housewife has put the whole house into clean and shining condition, and has even swept the street in front of the house and freed it from all the dirt which it has collected during the week; when, finally, even the children are bathed; then the adults wash off the week's dust, scrub themselves thoroughly; and go to the fresh clothes which are lying ready for them: when all of that is arranged, with rural lengthiness and care, then a deep warm feeling of resting settles down over the people.

Expressions and situations, drawn from a no longer existent daily life, are forever being blown up as if they were empowered and guaranteed by some absolute which is kept silent out of reverence. While those who know better hesitate to appeal to revelation, they arrange, in their addiction to authority, for the ascension of the word beyond the realm of the actual, conditioned, and contestable; while these same people, even in private, express the word as though a blessing from above were directly composed into that word. That supreme state which has to be thought, but which also refuses being thought, is mutilated by the jargon. The latter acts as if it had possessed this state "from the beginning of time," as it might run in the jargon. What philosophy aims at, the peculiar character of philosophy which makes representation essential to it, causes all its words to say more than each single one. This characteristic is exploited by the jargon. The transcendence of truth beyond the meanings of individual words and propositional statements is attributed to the words by the jargon, as their immutable possession, whereas this "more" is formed only by the mediation of the constellation. According to its ideal, philosophical language goes beyond what it says by means of what it says in the development of a train of thought. Philosophical language transcends dialectically in that the contradiction between truth and thought becomes self-conscious and thus overcomes itself. The jargon takes over this transcendence destructively and consigns it to its own chatter. Whatever more of meaning there is in the words than what they say has been secured for them once and for all as expression. The dialectic is broken off: the dialectic between word and thing as well as the dialectic, within language, between the individual words and their relations. Without judgment, without having been thought, the word is to leave its meaning behind. This is to institute the reality of the "more." It is to scoff, without reason, at that mystical language speculation which the jargon, proud of its simplicity, is careful not to remember. The jargon obliterates the difference between this "more" for which language gropes, and the in-itself of this more. Hypocrisy thus becomes an a priori, and everyday language is spoken here and now as if it were the sacred one. A profane language could only approach the sacred one by distancing itself from the sound of the holy, instead of by trying to imitate it. The jargon transgresses this rule blasphemously. When it dresses empirical words with aura, it exaggerates general concepts and ideas of philosophy -as for instance the concept of being-so grossly that their conceptual essence, the mediation through the thinking subject, disappears completely under the varnish. Then these terms lure us on as if they were the most concrete terms. Transcendence and concretion scintillate. Ambiguity is the medium of an attitude toward language which is damned by its favorite philosophy.


Excerpted from THE Jargon OF Authenticity by THEODOR W. ADORNO Copyright © 1973 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Theodor Adorno (1903 - 1969). German philosopher who was a leading member of the Frankfurt School. Adorno led an influential attack on the "culture industry" prevalent in contemporary capitalist society.

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